Sunday, August 21, 2016


     "About that time he [(Cyprian)] wrote a letter to his friend Donatus.  'Donatus,'—he said, in effect—,'this is a cheerful world indeed as I see it from my fair garden, under the shadow of my vines.  But if I could ascend some high mountain, and look out over the wide lands, you know very well what I should see:  brigands on the highways, pirates on the seas, armies fighting, cities burning, in the amphitheaters men murdered to please applauding crowds, selfishness and cruelty and misery and despair under all roofs.  It is a bad world, Donatus, an incredibly bad world.  But I have discovered in the midst of it a company of quiet and holy people who have learned a great secret.  They have found a joy which is a thousand times better than any of the pleasures of our sinful life.  They are despised and persecuted, but they care not:  they are masters of their souls.  They have overcome the world.  These people, Donatus, are the Christians,—and I am one of them.'"

     George Hodges, Saints and heroes to the end of the Middle Ages (New York:  H. Holt and company, 1911), 6-7.
     Cyprian does speak of the beauties of his garden and the manifold evils of the world.  But as "he said, in effect" indicates, Hodges was here at best paraphrasing, but more precisely only drastically condensing Cyprian's Ad Donatum (c. 246) in his own words.  What is more, Hodges seems to have made up the last five sentences, as it would be difficult to find anything quite like them in the original.  More to the point, I have yet to turn up a form of the word "Christianus" in pp. 3-16 of CSEL 3.1 (1868), though the word occurs in each of its forms, both singular and plural, elsewhere in that same volume.  Nor, it seems (though I have not searched the Library of Latin Texts), does "sum" appear.  Clearly this should be attributed to Hodges.
     Some drop the definite article:  "These people, Donatus, are Christians".


Banshee said...

To be fair, there is a bit in section 14, where he talks about a Christian as someone who is greater than the world/the age ("qui saeculo major est"), which could be paraphrased as "overcome the world." The idea that Christians are "masters of the world" may also come from section 5, where St. Cyprian talks about how a baptized and confirmed Christian of good character has power from the Holy Spirit to cure illnesses and exorcise demons, and calls this an "empire of the mind" ("animi potentatus" - literally, "potentate of the soul"). The idea that Christians are quiet probably comes from the bit in section 14 about tranquility and safety away from the tornados or maelstroms of the world ("una, igitur, placida et fida tranquillitas, una solida et firma et perpetua securitas... ab his inquietantis saeculi turbinibus extractus").

But paraphrasing classical texts used to be part of Latin classes, and a certain bold freedom of expression was more prized than exactitude. Older writers also tended to assume that you'd already read certain famous works, and would know what they were adding or subtracting. So we have to watch those older writers a bit, because we don't catch this stuff as easily as we'd catch additions and jokes that were stuck into Star Trek paraphrases.

The misleading bit of the paraphrase is that, from the beginning of the letter, Donatus is addressed as someone who already is Christian in opinions, and at the end of the letter, we learn that he is known to his friends for being a good domestic singer of the daily psalms that early Christians sang together. It might be teased out that he has only recently been baptized and wants to learn more about it, but he doesn't need to be told about the existence and goodness of Christians. (Except maybe in a rhetorical sense.)

Banshee said...

I read a little farther back, to where the Cyprian chapter of the book talks about the martyrdom of Ss. Perpetua and Felicitas. The author overstates his case again, as he says that Perpetua's family was all pagan except her. Perpetua herself says that her unbaptized little brother who died was Christian, and the implication is pretty clear that her mother was Christian. It's almost like her dad was the only pagan left in the family, frankly. She was just the one who was caught. (Although I'm saying this from memory, and I could be overstating it too!)

So yeah, I think the author is just all about the drama in his retelling. That's the way a lot of "popular histories for kids" worked back then, and still work today.

Banshee said...

Sorry, can't stop commenting....

Anyway, the real Cyprian story seems to be, "Senator becomes Christian in beliefs, can't really see how baptism will change things, gets baptized, and finds out how different he becomes. Donatus gets baptized and asks for a pep talk about how to stay good after baptism. Cyprian writes him a letter talking a bit about his experiences, and then mostly pointing to the suckiness of the worldly pagan world, along with some more encouragement at the end."

That's not really easy to put across to kids, so the author goes with the drama.

Steve Perisho said...

Thanks for your interest and comments!

Steve Perisho said...

I would add that the problem with "older writers" lies not with them and the practices current in, say, 1911 (Would that we had that facility today!), but with us. Which is to say that the problem arises when a passage like Hodges' highly condensed encapsulation gets quoted as if from a translation of Cyprian. (And indeed, it was just such a "quotation" of (supposedly) Cyprian himself that prompted my investigations.)